Q&A: Getting Financial Aid During An Economic Crisis

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Part of a weeklong series on the impact of the economy on higher education

About This Series

This week, Morning Edition studies The New College Math: families and students who are recalculating how much they can spend during a recession; colleges trying to fill seats; and an expansion in federal aid that could determine for some whether they attend college at all.

Live Web Chat:
12:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Have questions about how to pay for college amid the recession? You can participate in a live chat with experts Tally Hart and Bill Hiss at 12:30 p.m. ET Thursday at NPR.org.

To find out how students are paying for college amid the economic recession, NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with Tally Hart. She's the former head of financial aid at Ohio State University, where she now runs an outreach program for lower income students.

When asked about recent changes in federal grants and loans, Hart says, "The No. 1 question that students always ask is, 'Will there be money for me to go to college?' The important part of the stimulus package is that it stabilizes and increases Pell Grants for these students, so we know it addresses the No. 1 concern about going on to college."

Steve Inskeep: Let's remember what the Pell Grant is. It's a federal program. It doesn't necessarily pay everything to go to college, but it helps.

Tally Hart: It helps a lot. The concept of the Pell Grant is that it forms a foundation of funding. It pays well more than half of their annual tuition.

And this increase of $500 in a Pell Grant? That's big money to a low-income student going to a state university?

It is. Our research shows that for low-income students, an amount like $500 does make a difference. If it helps them cover more of their costs so that their other scholarships can pay for books and they get their transportation covered, it makes a huge difference.

I think the bigger message is that Pell Grants are going to increase rather than decrease. Federal student loans are really secured by congressional action. When there have been previously any discussion of federal aid reducing, low-income students stop going to college. And even if —

Did you just say "any discussion" — meaning they just hear news of it and they stop?

That's right.

Given what you've just said, I bet there must be a lot of prospective students who are saying, you know, "I need a student loan to go to college, and in this atmosphere there's no way I'm getting a loan." They don't even try for the loan.

That's one of the big problems. I encourage families and my own family members all the time: Apply, let us tell you what you're eligible to receive, wait to see the facts, and then make a good, solid decision.

Have you had relatives who have been reluctant to try for college?

Yes, yes, or who have made choices because they think, "I can only commute and go locally." So trying to have this conversation to encourage them to go through the process and apply, rather than assume what financing will be and maybe make wrong choices.

Can you share with me some of the conversations you've had with students in the past few weeks?

One of the things that concerns a lot of families is that the federal system bases eligibility on their 2008 income and their parents' 2008 income. Students want to know what to do when mom or dad lost a job, and it's important the families know that they can apply and have their aid revised based on their 2009 circumstance.

Are more students coming to you for financial aid than was the case a couple of years back?

Yes. We see both more students applying for financial aid and more need among those who are applying. So we can see the real impact of the economy as you look across the financial aid process.

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